Director Sam Jones won plaudits earlier this year for his HBO documentary “Jason Isbell: Running With Our Eyes Closed,” one of the best-regarded music docs since his own “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco” back in 2001. He also got attention this year for his HBO documentary series “Smartless: On the Road,” with Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and Sean Hayes. But he doesn’t go on-camera himself with those particular doc projects, the way he did in his long-running talk show “Off Camera With Sam Jones,” which ran for 220 episodes on DirecTV from 2013 through 2020.
Now Jones putting himself back in the formal host role with a new series he’s begun shooting intermittently at the Hotel Café club in Hollywood, titled “The Talent Show.” The types of guests he has and the strength of his interviewing chops will seem recognizable to anyone familiar with “Off Camera,” albeit with a twist to this new show: less talk and more rock. Well, just a little less talk; the bulk of the programs may still be his in-depth conversations with celebrity guests. But the distinguishing factor will be that each in-person event and filmed episode ends with the guest in question doing a set of music with Jones and his versatile band, the Spoilers. Some of the guests will be famous full-time musicians, but probably more will be celebs from other realms — acting, sports, etc. — who either moonlight as singers or are trying out their music skills in public for the first time.
Jones is doing his third public “Talent Show” taping at Hotel Café Sunday, and he’s snagged one of the film and TV world’s more formidable acting talents, Michael Shannon, as his interviewee and guest musical frontman for the evening. Shannon has not been shy to sing publicly, with his turn as George Jones in the “George and Tammy” limited series having won him an Emmy nomination. But aside from playing Possum, Shannon has mostly been playing possum when it comes to showing off his real singing voice. Fans of the actor can find out what he sounds like as himself in a Hotel Café program set for 7:30 p.m.; some $40 tickets for the intimate chat and performance are still available as of this writing.
Jones is waiting to complete a full season of the series before he tries to sell it, much as he did when he was developing “Off Camera.” So he’s appreciative of guests like Tony Hawk and Mandy Moore, who already shot episodes, or Jason Segel, Ed Helms and Aimee Mann, who are coming up, as well as Shannon for signing off on doing a format that has to be explained a little, since the series isn’t already out there yet.
“I was just writing my introduction for Michael, and I think he is the prototypical guest,” Jones says. “Besides playing music, he grew up in non-equity theater in Chicago in small rooms, and he loves that probably more than movies and television. So I think that Michael is a guy who is a little more comfortable with discomfort and putting himself out there. I had him on my (‘Off Camera’) show back in 2016, and I just liked that he was a very different interview than almost anybody. He’s really thoughtful, and kind of the guy that will say things that other people are thinking but don’t necessarily say.
“And he’s really gotten into this whole thing and is super-excited to do it, and he’s doing six or seven songs that he loves. It’ll be a very passionate, fun thing, and I think an extension of him, like in a play where he has a chance to improv a little bit or something. Throughout this process, he’s been texting back and forth and talking about songs and changing things. First he just wanted to sing, and then just recently he said, ‘Oh, can you have a guitar there for me?’ So he’s an active participant, which I love. You know, anyone who does this thing at the beginning, before we actually find a home for the show, is a brave person, to not even necessarily understand exactly what it is and just to hop on board and say, ‘Let’s go for it.’ … But that’s what the show is designed to be: a little bit of a high-wire act.”
Mandy Moore, who shot the second episode in June, was a perfect guest in her own way, being someone who keeps a foot in both the TV and music worlds. For the performance part of her evening, she was joined by husband Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, and Benmont Tench of the Heartbreakers, as well as the house band, performing songs by John Prine, Tom Petty and others after a conversation that dug into her history as a pop starlet and tenure on “This Is Us.”
But Jones thinks a big part of “The Talent Show” will be exposing the musical side of those guests who don’t have multiple albums under their belt.
“I think there will always be a musical performance of some nature,” Jones says, “and I think once we establish that, it could be almost anybody. Like, I would very much like to call Billie Joe (Armstrong) of Green Day, who I think is a super-interesting guy and has different musical tastes than what people know, and talk to him and then have him play covers of stuff that he first heard when he was a little kid or something. There’s still a way with a musician to do it, and I want musicians to be a big part of this. But I do want to definitely establish with this beachhead that this is not this intimidating thing where you have to be a great musician to do it. You just have to love music.
“I think that I want to be really careful at the beginning not to have too many musicians that are intimidating (in lining up future non-pro-musician guests), because the goal is really more about putting yourself out there artistically. So, for instance, when Tony Hawk came and did it, he’s not a singer, but seeing him up there getting super into singing these punk-rock songs that he loved growing up was a special experience to watch. Because it’s someone who loves music enough that they want to put themselves out there in a different discipline. I feel like almost anybody that’s really good in the performing arts in some area — acting, or even writing or directing — probably has a love for music and an understanding of music, and maybe has a closet couple of karaoke songs they love. Or maybe they take it more seriously, like all these actors like Kevin Bacon or Jeff Daniels, or people who were becoming established as singers before the acting thing went really well for them, like a Kristen Bell, or Jason Segel, who is a great piano player and loves writing music — people whose (acting) success almost got in the way of them flexing that muscle throughout their life. That’s what interests me.”
The intimacy of the setting is part of how he hopes to give those who haven’t exposed their music chops so much to feel secure in doing that. That’s why he ultimately felt that even doing it in a place as big and as formally seated as the modest Largo would have been too much. “Obviously with the level of guests we’re getting, we could do it in a bigger place. But I think a bigger place has a different kind of expectation, whereas this feels a little more handmade. … I keep using the word ‘experiment’ when I go up there to do introductions because it is an experiment. I don’t want people to think that if they come to see it live it’s some highly produced thing. It’s an experiment in trying to make a really intimate environment for artists to take risks. And as the host, I’m trying to take a big risk and be that example.”
The first guest Jones brought into Hotel Café, veteran skateboarding star Tony Hawk, obviously had a high comfort level with Jones, who directed the 2022 HBO documentary “Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off.” Hawk asked if he could bring in a second guest for his episode, not because he felt insecure singing, but out of fandom: Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo. Together they performed “Uncontrollable Urge,” a song that Hawk skateboarded to in the HBO doc, just like he did when he was coming up decades ago. Additionally, Hawk and Jones’ band played songs from their respective California youths by bands like Agent Orange and the Clash. Hawk even called up Brooke Shields and got her to record an introduction for the show, exactly like the one she did back in the for “Rodney on the Roq,” as heard on a vintage Rodney Bingenheimer compilation album.
The inspiration for “The Talent Show With Sam Jones” came when he was filming the “Smartless” series for HBO. “We met up with Matt Damon in Wisconsin, and Sean (Hayes) asked Matt if he’d ever been in musicals, and Matt said, ‘Yeah, I was Pippin.’ And then Sean says, ‘I was Pippin too!’ And they both broke into this spontaneous couple of lines from one of the songs in the musical. It was the most endearing, spontaneous moment of the whole interview with Matt to me. You’re not a human being if you don’t break into a smile when both of them start singing. Because Matt had such joy in the fact that he worked on a song and learned it way back in high school and still remembers the lyrics. And I was like, that’s cool. That’s not what you see in a normal setting for an interview with somebody.”
Jones is proud of the reception the “Smartless” series got this year, and even of the fact that something so different got picked up.
“It’s just joyful, going on a trip with three brothers who are really funny and love to give each other shit,” the director says about the show with Hayes, Bateman and Artnett. “That may be the most fun thing I’ve ever made. I was able to direct it while having a camera in my hands, and I had a key to their hotel room, so basically I just got to go hang out with three of the funniest guys in the world all day and night and then fly around on private jets and stay in the Four Seasons and make a movie about it. It’s so fun to see on social media people quoting certain lines and talking about how they sat there with their wife or husband and just laughed… The editor and I just sat there and made the thing we wanted to make. And the network thought they were buying a two-hour documentary in color, and I gave them a six-part series in black and white. And to their credit — I was shocked — they let it go through.”
There was less hilarity in his documentary about Jason Isbell and his singer-songwriter wife Amanda Shires, which captured some tension in their relationship as they worked on an album in 2019. Viewers formed an emotional connection with the couple, fans and non-fans alike.
“I was really unsure, with how saturated the music documentary genre has become, that something could break through that was about an artist that a lot of people didn’t know. To be honest, I was very shocked that it sort of touched a chord, and that the part that really touched the chord was the relationship stuff that was in there. At the time I was making that, the top question on my mind was the relationship between him and his wife and how it was going to affect their daughter — and how that dovetailed with the material he was writing, which invited questions about his upbringing and his parents and their parents’ divorce. All those things came together in a way that worked for me. But really, I’d sit there with the editor, Erin Nordstrom, and go, ‘Is anyone going to care, who doesn’t know who this guy is?’ And then to have HBO get behind it the way they did… The best thing to read for me is when a fan on his social media says, ‘Hey, I just went and saw you in Minneapolis or wherever, and I liked you before, but after seeing the movie, it’s so amazing to watch you and Amanda on stage and hear you play those songs…’ To know that you can tell a story about somebody and have people make a deeper connection to that artist, to me, that’s so cool.
“It’s like why any of us used to make a mixtape for our friends, or when someone comes over that we admire, we want to play a certain record for them, because we want to share the thing that turns us on at the most core level. And the fact that the film made people say ‘I really like Jason as a human being’… you know, it’s nice when that stuff works out. Because this stuff is hard. And I’ve certainly had some false starts on documentariess that I thought were gonna work and didn’t, and when it works it’s just such a nice feeling to put that out there in the world and have that kind of response come back. I don’t take it for granted at all, and I’m shocked every time it works.”
Jones has another feature-length documentary in progress, about Ricky Carmichael. “He’s a dirt bike racer, motocross, but he’s not only the greatest dirt bike racer of all time, he’s the greatest motorsports athlete of all time. He may be the greatest individual athlete of all time, except for maybe George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, in terms of his winning percentage. What is appealing to me is that his story is unconventional in that his mom, who had never been on a motorcycle, became his coach and became the best coach in that sport of all time. And that world is a world that’s never really been explained to the mainstream — what that sport is, and how hard it is, and how great these guys are as athletes, and what an incredibly dangerous sport it is. So I get to tell an unconventional mother/son story, and it also is this sport that I love so much, where I get to sort of introduce people to it, hopefully in a mainstream fashion, if I can sell it to a mainstream streamer. It’s a little bit similar to what we did with Tony; more people know who Tony Hawk is, but to be able to really tell a human story about an athlete in a sport that has a lot of preconceived notions about it that aren’t true is very exciting for me.”
Jones started out his career as a still photographer, doing celebrity portraiture covers for Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, et al. (His work also appeared on album covers — although it’s not a band portrait, Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” is his.) He’s returning to that role by doing some photography of U2 in Las Vegas that will be used in the promotion of their high-profile Sphere residency, opening at the end of the month.
It will be longer for anyone to see the results of his “Talent Show” shoots, but he has faith the series will get picked up once he completes a season.
“The way that we did ‘Off Camera,’ we made a bunch of them before we sold it. We were not even expecting it to be on a network. We were sort of just going to put it out on our own and try to make like a subscription-based model, and then someone at DirecTV heard about it. So I’m kind of doing the same thing with this, spending some money making it at first and getting it right, then seeing if there’s anyone who wants it. We’re not pitching it as an idea; we’re making it and saying, ‘Here it is. This is exactly the thing you’re buying if you’re interested.’ I think it depends on how long it takes us to figure out exactly what the show is; hopefully it’s not more than eight episodes, because there’s not an unlimited supply of money sitting around to make these things. We’re trying to make them very economically and in the spirit of do-it-yourself, handmade television that we did with ‘Off Camera.’”
In the meantime, he’s pumped for whatever happens Sunday with Shannon. “I don’t know if you feel this way, but I feel like when I’m around true artists and people who get to live the life of an artist, I feel like I have more permission to be more of myself, more creative, more of a risk-taker. It’s almost like, when you’re in a room full of accountants, or whoever else, you almost feel the constraints of how you’re supposed to behave and what makes people uncomfortable. And then when you’re around people like Michael Shannon, it’s like, ‘Oh, we get to just play, and be awkward, creative human beings.’”